Beat the winter blues with exercise

Physical and psychological benefits of exercise

Motivating yourself for exercise in winter can be difficult when the days are short and the weather is chilly. However, exercising indoors or outdoors can still be hugely beneficial to improving your health and fitness during the winter months. Here’s our guide to blowing away the cobwebs and getting fit in winter:

After going for a fresh winter run or other outdoor exercise session, you won’t need to be reminded that no matter how much you feel like curling up on the sofa until spring, exercise can really help you shake off the winter blues.

By exercising outdoors, you’ll get a double-whammy mood boost, enjoying both the physiological and psychological pay-offs of moving the body (like kick-starting a sluggish metabolism and bolstering body image) as well as the proven benefits of being in the natural environment.

Mother Nature and exercise

Eco-psychologists believe that we humans have an innate affinity with the natural world and experience positive mood states when we are in green places, by water or up mountains. In one study, hospital patients whose beds merely looked out on to a view of trees and grass healed faster than those who looked out on to a brick wall, while research from Johns Hopkins University found that even the sound of a stream improved pain control in patients undergoing a painful procedure. It’s no wonder, then, that when we hole up for winter, rarely see daylight and eschew walks for DVDs, that we end up feeling a little jaded or even have full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Fresh air and an ‘escape’ from the built-up environment most of us are confined to, are probably part of the explanation why the great outdoors is so great however unspoiled, natural places also have an abundance of negative ions in the air, which are ironically believed to energize and uplift us, as well as help with mental focus.

Nature is the best healer

The most negative ions are found in high places and beside running water, while built-up, man-made and polluted areas are high in positive ions, which have the opposite effect on us. Runners who ran on a treadmill in an Australian experiment experienced lesser mood improvement than those who ran outside.

You don’t have to do anything as energetic as running to benefit from exercising outdoors, however — a brisk walk, horseback riding or cycling are all great options  and the nicer the scenery, the better. You’ll also be burning more calories by exercising outside as your body needs to use extra energy to maintain its core temperature. In one study, subjects burned 12 per cent more energy during outdoor sessions in cold weather.

What if indoor training is the only option?

But what if green, open spaces are nowhere to be seen or it’s just too cold to head outdoors for some exercise? Well, you’ll still get some great benefits from exercising indoors. Dull winter skin gets a rosy glow thanks to increased circulation, digestion gets moving, metabolism is stoked and your permanently chilly hands and feet warm up too — it’s called the thermic effect of exercise! Even better, your mind feels awake and alert — thanks to a greater supply of oxygen — while your joints are less stiff and your muscles are more supple after a spell of regular movement.

Indoor or out, there is a great sense of accomplishment to be gained from winter exercise workouts — perhaps because it’s so much harder to motivate yourself to get out there and do it when the weather is harsh and daylight sparse. When you do achieve it, you feel so much better.

The Mayo Clinic released some simple tips to make exercise safe and easy in the winter.

  • Head into the wind. When running you'll be less likely to get chilled on the way back if you end your workout, when you may be sweaty, with the wind at your back.
  • Layer it on. One of the biggest mistakes cold-weather exercisers make is dressing too warmly. Exercise generates a considerable amount of heat — enough to make you feel like it's 30 degrees warmer than it really is. At the same time, once you start to tire and the sweat dries, you can get chilled. So, dress in layers.
  • Choose appropriate gear. If it's dark, wear reflective clothing. To stay steady on your feet, choose footwear with enough traction to prevent falls. Wear a helmet for skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout, even if you're not thirsty. You can become just as dehydrated in the cold as in the heat from sweating, breathing and increased urine production.
  • If in doubt check it out. In the cold weather conditions temperatures can sometimes take a toll on people with certain medical conditions, anyone with heart or lung problems or asthma should make a quick call to the appropriate physician to get the okay for outdoor exercise.

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